Announcing German Literature Month X

10 years, who would have thought it?  But here we are, and in a year when there has been plenty to be glum about, Lizzy and I thought we should buck the trend, and celebrate ten years with a bang! Hence the badge.

Thanks to all who have travelled with us thus far.  We hope you’ll accompany us again. For those who may be new to this, German Literature Month is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads. All good. Just use the hashtag #germanlitmonth when you share your thoughts.

Don’t have a clue what to read?  There’s a veritable database of reviews over at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com to help you find something appealing.

This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.

Programme 1

Unable to visit Germany this year for pandemic related reasons, Lizzy has an acute case of Fernweh, and has therefore decided on a virtual tour of Germany. One which will include all 16 Bundesländer, one way or another. Primarily through literature interwoven with memory.

Programme 2

I have decided to focus on four authors of interest, and chosen authors mean that there are weeks in which the spotlight will also  shine on Austria and Switzerland. My itinerary looks like this:

November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche

November 8-14 Max Frisch

November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann

November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz

The fourth week will include a Literature and War readalong of a recently discovered Lenz novel, The Turncoat. The discussion will take place on Friday 27.11.

As always, you can read as you please throughout the entire month.

We look forward to your company and discovering some scintillating German-language literature together.

Austrian Crime – Some Reasons Why You Might Like Alex Beer’s Crime Series

Alex Beer is an Austrian crime writer whose books have won many prestigious prizes. The Leo Perutz Preis and the Austrian Krimipreis, among others. Alex Beer was born in Bregenz. She lives in Vienna. The August Emmerich series is her first series. She’s now writing another one with a protagonist called Isaak Rubinstein.

I discovered her August Emmerich crime series at the book shop a while ago. Usually I don’t read historical crime, or very rarely, but the setting – Vienna after WWI – immediately caught my attention. It’s such a fascinating period. Unfortunately, they didn’t have book one at the book shop, so I picked the third in the series instead. That was a mistake, as I liked it very much, and will now have to go back and start with book one. That’s the reason, why this isn’t a proper review, as, so far, only the first in the series, The Second Rider, was translated. I’m sure it’s every bit as good as the third one though. I wish I had waited and ordered the first as some of what happens in Emmerich’s life in book three, spoils the first two books.

The main protagonists of the series are August Emmerich and his side-kick Ferdinand Winter, of the Austrian police force. Emmerich is a war veteran. Because of a war injury he’s in a lot of pain and has a tough time running or walking. Winter comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything during the war. As he’s so good looking, women warm to him quite a bit. They are both likable, complex characters and I enjoyed their relationship very much.

While they are police detectives, they don’t shy away from bending the rules, if necessary. In book three, they also hunt a crime boss for personal reasons, which makes the series a bit of blend between a police procedural and a PI novel. The descriptions, mood, and atmosphere, all contribute to that as well.

The crime they must solve in book three, is suspenseful and so is the subplot, involving the crime boss, but that’s not what won me over. What I absolutely loved, besides the atmosphere, was the way Vienna was described. People are so poor. The city’s rife with criminals. There are hardly any goods available outside of the black market, where they cost a fortune. People are hungry, kids are starving. Antisemitism is on the rise. People already shout they want the annexation of Austria into Germany. The books, set in 1919 and 1920 respectively, show a country under shock. The massive multilingual Empire has been dissolved. All that remains is the comparatively small Austria, mourning its former glory.

While reading Joseph Roth, I got a feel for how huge the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. When you see what’s left after WWI, you can understand why so many think it’s all a very bad dream. Add to that the poverty and criminality, which make Vienna a very unsafe place, and you can imagine how desperate the people were.

Historical novels excel when they give you a feel for a period but also when they pique your curiosity and entice you to read more about a certain time and place. Alex Beer’s novels do exactly that. This was way more than an entertaining book. It’s rich in atmosphere and full of fascinating details. An excellent choice for those who like to read women/crime in translation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I’ve long been a fan of Elly Griffith’s Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, slowly reading one book after the other. There are twelve books by now, four of which I’ve read. She’s also been writing a new series, The Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I was quite pleased to see that she’s now also writing standalone novels and since The Stranger Diaries, published last year, has gotten so much praise and was called a “modern Gothic”, I decided to read it.

The story is told from three different points of view. Clare Cassidy, a fortysomething English teacher, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, and Georgia or Georgie, Clare’s daughter.

Clare teaches English at a school, parts of which are located in the house of a Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was famous for his chilling short story The Stranger. In her spare time, Clare is writing a book on the author. She used to be best friends with another English teacher, Ella, but for some reason, they aren’t really close anymore. When Ella is found murdered, Clare is unsettled for many reasons, one of which is a note found next to the body. It’s a line taken from The Stranger, a short story that hardly anyone knows.

Detective Kaur instantly dislikes the tall, beautiful Clare and suspects her to either know more than she admits or to be involved in the murder. When another body is found, under even more sinister circumstances, Clare begins to fear that she and her daughter might be next.

I absolutely loved the beginning of the story, told from Clare’s point of view. I loved the setting, the mystery, the characters, but then the book switched to Detective Kaur’s point of view and while her POV is convincing, I found the book immediately lost some of its drive and most of the atmosphere. When the third narrator was introduced, Georgie, it fizzled out even more. I did not care for her parts and would have wished they’d been left out.

That said, there were still elements that made this a gripping read, I just wished, she’d told it differently. What did not work for me at all was the ending. Was it a twist? Yes. Was it believable? Absolutely not.

I’m really in two minds about this book. There’s a lot to like here but, ultimately, because of the ending, it was a disappointment. I’ll still read more of Elly Griffiths but stick to the Ruth Galloway mysteries.

Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I don’t read a lot of bestselling mainstream novels. Very often, I don’t even hear about them. But from time to time there’s a book that sells so many copies that I’m interested to find out what the fuss is all about. Especially when the premise sounds intriguing like in the case of Where the Crawdads Sing. The premise of a girl growing up on her own in the swampy marsh of Northern Carolina and becoming one with the nature that surrounds her. Delia Owens is well known as a wildlife scientist and published three nonfiction books before writing her first novel. That, too, sounded intriguing. That was also pretty much all I knew about the book when I started to read. You can imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that there’s a dead body in the swamp at the beginning of the book. It’s only then that I became aware that the book was called a blend between love story/crime/court room drama. And that brings us right to my biggest reservation – sometimes a blend works but in this case it doesn’t. It’s neither a proper crime story, nor is it purely a love story and the courtroom part, I’m sorry to say, is ludicrous.

I did like the beginning which was mostly set in the past, in the 50s, and told the very tragic story of a small child, Kya, who was first abandoned by her mother, then by her siblings and finally also by her father, an abusive drunk. She’s only ten and decides to survive on her own, knowing very well if the authorities found out she’s been abandoned, she’d land in the foster care system. These parts not only introduce us to an amazing ecosystem but also to a way of life. It seems like the marsh is a world of its own, with its own rules, outside of society. Because Kya is intelligent and observes the world around her, she’s able to survive. She also gets some outside help from a black family, pretty much outsiders too, in this small town. She also meets a boy who teaches her to read and write, which will have very surprising consequences.

While the beginning was strong, the descriptions of the landscape so detailed that I felt like I was visiting the marsh, the book quickly went downhill after that. I had a feeling that Delia Owens had an idea for a story, a very intriguing idea, and a love for a landscape but no plot. And, so, she decided to add a crime story that then turned into a courtroom drama à la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The crime idea might not have been a bad one. There are many novels about a crime that are very successful without being really crime novels. But for me, this one didn’t work. She should have written either proper crime or searched for a plot somewhere else. The result is full of inconsistencies and lacks realism. The character development is also rather dubious, and the use of vernacular is just terrible.

You’ll be surprised to hear that despite all these reservations, I didn’t mind reading the book. I loved the way this landscape was brought to life. I found the way Delia Owens conveyed how Kya fought against her loneliness by becoming one with the flora and fauna that surrounded her believable and well done.

It’s less a bad book than a missed opportunity. This could have been very good. The question that remains is – why did this become such a major bestseller? She sold over 4million copies of the book even though the publisher only printed 23,000 copies at first. The reason might be the choice of setting. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many people who loved this novel are very interested in ecological themes. I don’t know many books where nature plays such a significant role and where the intricacies of ecosystems are shown so well. I have no doubts that Delia Owens is a very good nonfiction writer.

I hope I was able to give you an idea, especially, if, like me, you were curious about this book. Maybe, now that you’re forewarned about the flaws, you might enjoy it more. Nature lovers, people who are interested in the marshes of North Carolina, those with in an interest in ecology and specific ecosystems, will still find a lot to like here.

Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. (Thomas Pakenham)

There isn’t much that is as beautiful and majestic as a big old tree. Their huge crowns house birds and insects, the foliage gives shade in summer. In autumn they delight us with their changing colours. In winter the large naked branches look so eerie against the grey sky. Some are fragrant like the acacia or the lime trees that are in bloom right now. And nothing compares to the sound of a large tree. The rustling of the leaves in the wind; the drops on the foliage when it rains. And all those other sounds coming from trees— the buzz of the insects and bees; bird song and the chirping of the young ones in their nests.

Trees are some of the most remarkable living beings on this planet. Every time when we have a storm, I fear for them. It’s such a heart-breaking sight to see such an old living being destroyed. But what’s even more heart-breaking is when they are chopped down for commercial reasons, for their wood or to make room for a building. Some of you who follow me on Twitter saw me tweet about the loss of the Oak that was growing near my childhood home. It was such a massive tree, far over 200 years old. It was struck by lightning once but survived. It only lost a branch. To me, as child, looking up into the vastness of its branches and dense foliage it looked indestructible. There was a bench under that tree and my mother used to sit on that bench, smoking a cigarette, playing with her dogs and talking to passers-by. I stood under that tree, the last time I went out with my dog before she had to be put to sleep that afternoon. I have so many memories tied to that tree and, foolishly, I thought it would survive me. But it didn’t. It was felled at the beginning of the year to make room for a huge underground parking. The trunk was chopped up and placed in a nearby deer park.

I often go for walks in the deer park and had noticed the trunks. They appeared right after a storm so I assumed, naively, a tree had been knocked down by the storm. I had a bad feeling looking at it, as I’d never seen any tree as big as this one nearby. So I went to my old childhood home, not too far away from the deer park and saw the massive hole. At that time I still believed, it might have been knocked down by the storm. The Oaks here in Switzerland are slowly dying because of the hot summers. The climate change doesn’t agree with them. The heat weakens them and many have to be felled for safety reasons. I can’t really describe the mix of feelings when I finally found out that this one hadn’t been in danger at all, but that some real estate agency decided to have it chopped down.

Thomas Pakenham had similar experiences. One when some giant beech trees were uprooted by a storm in his native Ireland. The other when he noticed the lack of big trees in Tibet. All but one very big tree had been felled for its timber. These experineces made him look at big trees in a new way and appreciate their beauty and majesty even more. The result is Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a book about 60 giant trees that you can find in Britain.

The sixty trees Pakenham chose for his book are remarkable for their size, age, shape or history.

He looks at trees that have been imported. Trees that have become sacred. Trees that have been turned into dwellings.

The tree below is a massive Yew tree. It looks like the oldest trees in England are Yews.

The trees are mostly grouped by themes. The tree below is another Yew that stands at Much Marcle.

Here’s an example of a huge Oak. The tree near my childhood home looked very different. It didn’t have any low branches at all. It had a huge trunk and a massive crown.

The tree below is a massive Ash.

Thomas Pakenham writes about these trees like they were people with their own personalities. Looking at all the pictures in the book you can see how different trees are, even when they are from the same species. That makes it even more heart-breaking when they die or are felled. Something beautiful and irreplaceable is gone forever.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

The novella Daisy Miller was published in 1878, the same year James published his novel The Europeans and two years before the publication of Washington SquarePortrait of a Lady came a little later, in 1881. It’s a pure coincidence that those are exactly the books by Henry James that I’ve read so far. Plus, the novella Madame de Mauves, which is from 1874. Madame de Mauves is the only one I’ve read while blogging. You can find the review here.

Henry James was very fond of novellas and as soon as you look at his extensive bibliography, you can see just how fond of them he was. Maybe I’m wrong, but I got the impression that Daisy Miller might be his most famous novella. That’s not surprising as it’s James at his most readable. People often complain that he’s not accessible, that his sentences are difficult. None of this is the case here. The writing is fluid and elegant, never clunky, never overcomplicated. And the story is engaging too.

Winterbourne is a young American who lives in Geneva most of the time. At the beginning of the story, he’s visiting his aunt in Vevey. While out on a walk, he meets a peculiar boy who is followed by his older sister. Winterbourne can’t take his eyes off the young woman. She’s so beautiful and elegant. But very different from the other young American women he met in Switzerland. She walks around without her mother or another chaperone, openly flirts with Winterbourne, teases him and is very capricious. Flirting is something young American girls, unlike the Europeans, do a lot. But not exactly with as much liberty as Daisy.

Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category

His aunt tells Winterbourne right away, that she’s beneath him, even though it’s obvious she’s extremely rich.

But don’t they all do these things–the young girls in America?” Winterbourne inquired.

Mrs. Costello stared a moment. “I should like to see my granddaughters do them!” she declared grimly. This seemed to throw some light upon the matter, for Winterbourne remembered to have heard that his pretty cousins in New York were “tremendous flirts

After a trip to Château de Chillon, Winterbourne returns to Geneva and Daisy and her mother and brother travel to Rome.

The following winter, Winterbourne meets Daisy again in Rome. She’s the talk of the town. People gossip because she’s always seen alone with men, most of the time with one very good looking Italian.

The news that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half a dozen wonderful mustaches checked Winterbourne’s impulse to go straightway to see her. He had, perhaps, not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive.

While Winterbourne found many excuses for her when he first met her, surprising her, in the middle of the night, in the Colosseum alone with the Italian, disgusts him.

Since Daisy Miller is a novella, writing more would give away the ending. Let’s just say – it’s tragic.

Daisy Miller is such a strong creation. She’s free, she’s witty, she doesn’t care about what people say. But Winterbourne and the reader wonder why. Is it because she is so innocent or is it because she’s without morals? The ending reveals which of the impressions is right.

James is always interested in the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans and how these change through travel and living abroad. It seems that Daisy Miller puzzles them all. She’s entirely her own person. The little brother is very unusual too and so is the mother who doesn’t seem to be able to guide her two children. I would have loved to be introduced to the dad, but we never get to see him as he stayed in the US.

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Because the book is called Daisy Miller, one could assume its eponymous heroine is the main character, which in a way she is. But Winterbourne is just as important because we see the story filtered through his eyes. This filtering, and the way he interprets everything, tells us a lot about him and the society he lives in.

As I said, Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo – Broken Dreams and Childhood Memories

Richard Russo is an American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls which came out in 2001. That Old Cape Magic was published in 2009. I remember buying it back then but I’m not entirely sure whether because of a review or a blog post. At the time, I hadn’t heard of Richard Russo but liked the idea of a book about memories, set mostly at Cape Cod.

The book begins with Griffin driving to the Cape to attend his daughter’s friend’s wedding. He’s carrying the urn with his father’s ashes in his trunk. He wants to scatter the ashes at the Cape. Normally his wife Joy should have been with him but because of a minor argument, he’s on his own and in a bad mood. The moment he crosses Sagamore Bridge, which will lead him to the Cape, he starts singing That Old Black Magic, or rather, as his parents used to sing, That Old Cape Magic. This opens the door to memories of his childhood and suddenly this isn’t a book about a middle-aged man in a possible marriage crisis, but the story of his complicated parents. Parents, who failed to live the life they longed for. Instead of being professors at a minor college in the “Mid-fucking-West”, they wanted to be at an elite university with a summer house at the Cape. As a substitute, they spend every summer at the Cape, renting a house. Depending on their fluctuating income, the house was either shabby or decent.

We’re immediately introduced to Griffin’s mother and can see why she’s difficult.

Griffin’s mother loathed grading papers, too, of course. Who didn’t? But she was meticulous about correcting errors, offering style and content suggestions in the margins, asking pointed, often insulting, questions (How long did you work on this?) and then answering them herself (Not long, one hopes, given the result).

The book has two parts, one set at Cape Cod, the other in Coastal Maine. Both are about a wedding and, in both instances, Griffin has urns with him. First his father’s, then his father’s and his mother’s.

Odd that the future should be so difficult to bring into focus when the past, uninvited, offered itself up so easily for inspection.

Told in flashbacks, we get to know both his parents and Griffin. Griffin suffered and still suffers because of his parents, two academic snobs, who were judgemental, sarcastic, and narcissistic. They had a way of judging people and things that was very cruel. At the same time, they were deeply disappointed in themselves. While they didn’t judge themselves openly, it was clear from the way they spoke about other people and how they rated things. The most telling was the way they rated the cottages and houses at Cape Cod, where they felt they should be able to live. Either it was “Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift” or “Can’t Afford It.” Basically, nothing was ever right or attainable. Because of that, back in the Mid-West, they also never bought their own house but always rented furnished places which they treated with disregard, breaking and staining things.

The drive back to the Mid-fucking-west was always brutal, his parents barely speaking to each other, as if suddenly recalling last year’s infidelities, or maybe contemplating whom they’d settle for this year. Sex, if you went by Griffin’s parents, definitely took a backseat to real estate on the passion gauge.

They are unlikable characters but not free of their own tragedy. It’s not their fault that their dreams weren’t fulfilled. But it’s their fault that they can’t move past it. They felt that they were better than what they got but not as good as what they wanted.

Griffin’s life turned out differently but is also not entirely successful. He started as screen writer, but only wrote cheap made-for-TV scripts and finally left L.A. and became a professor of screenwriting. Griffin always thought that he was different, but his interior monologues show clearly, he’s not only quoting his parents or hearing, especially his mother’s voice, but he’s a little like them too. He frowns upon simple people, easily calls someone a moron. This leads to conflicts with his wife Joy who comes from a family that’s anything but academic.

Griffin dismissed their (his parents) snobbery and unearned sense of entitlement, but swallowed whole the rationale on which it was based (Can’t Afford It; Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift).

Weddings often trigger hidden feelings about marriage and life in general and it’s no different here. The first leads to total emotional chaos, while the second, his daughter’s wedding, one year later, turns into a farce.

In the comment section of a post about funny novels, Tom from Wuthering Expectations suggested Russo’s campus novel Straight Man. After reading That Old Cape Magic, and especially the hilarious scenes during the second wedding, I’m keen on finally reading it. The mean and snarky comments of Griffins mother often made me chuckle, but the scenes at the wedding rehearsal made me laugh out loud.

When I started this book, I expected something different. Something more lyrical, more atmospheric. But that’s not the way Russo writes. There’s a subtlety here but its more psychological, sarcastic, and humorous. I think it says a lot about a book when someone like me, who prefers lyrical, atmospheric books, ended up enjoying this as much as I did. It’s not only funny but says so much about family dynamics, marriage, broken dreams, family rituals, coming to terms with the past, and also the bond between parents and children and between spouses.

For anyone who has complicated parents or who has or had to deal with someone who is both judgemental and always seems to feel entitled, this will ring very true.

I attached a short video in which Richard Russo speaks about That Old Cape Magic and tells how this book, which started out as a short story, turned into a novel. It’s not only a good intro to the book but says a lot about the creative process.

If you’re looking for a funny novel – here’s the link to my post on Funny Novels again. It’s a great resource as many people added suggestions.